Standing on Shoulders


I taught a biology majors seminar class for many semesters targeted at students in their senior year of college. One of my favorite questions to ask them was to identify the person most responsible for determining their academic major and direction. That is, “Why are you a biology major? What or who slanted you here?”

As one might expect, over the years there were many references to parents or other relatives as well as experiences a student had with wildlife, farming, or illness. I did not keep count, but near the top over the years was reference to a teacher the student had had. That teacher said just the right thing, asked the right question, or gave just the right encouragement; the timing was important.

Much of my academic career has been spent at an institution that values its history. Many organizations say they do that, but few emphasize it so clearly. It became trite, frankly, to hear people state that we were “standing on the shoulders” of those who had gone before us. Despite its simplicity, those of us who treasure the great biblical stories and people can connect with the statement easily.

It is interesting to contrast that truth with the modern American self-help/wellness industry that teaches clear independence for each person. You can be anything you want to be. You are on your own. Just work hard, win the competition, and you will be able to achieve your goals.

Although there is certain truth to having goals and planning how to achieve them, there is a serious trap waiting here. Whatever achievement we make is largely dependent on learned and experienced skills taught by others or by our situations. We are not really on our own even as humans (let alone as God’s people); we are the product of our background. I am not a self-made person.

There is some good biology here. I and most of you inhabit bodies that are amazing in their perfection. Even more striking is how we got these adult bodies beginning with a single sperm and egg meeting. One of my favorite sub-specialties is developmental biology (called “embryology” in the old days); this field attempts to describe the fantastic events of growth in cell number and in the specialization of the cells into tissues, organs, and systems. Why do we have one arm and one leg on each side of our bodies? How was it arranged to have two ears but only one mouth? Although there are certainly some tragic errors of embryology that can occur, the fact is that virtually all of us were born nearly perfect biologically. And that is just the beginning.

From that point on our parents and other relatives as well as teachers, friends, mentors, even neighbors, began pouring into us (for better or worse) information, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that shaped us. Our religious experiences taught us that there just might be more to the world than our senses and intellect could understand. We learned some things by trial and error, but we also learned that it was often more pleasant and productive if we used people of character and experience as models. It is odd that we so quickly forget that we are, in fact, really a group project.

Somehow, we have gotten the idea that we got here on our own. Perhaps it has always been this way, but today we especially hear the cries of “individual freedoms” and “personal rights.” This language demonstrates a personal pride, often of our own accomplishments. Define it any way you wish, but many of us are the products of great privilege. We were born to these parents in this country at this time with this color skin and these financial and educational advantages. We need to be very cautious of others, including leaders, who seem to miss that fundamental point. 

What we do every day is start from our foundation and build from there. Author Kate Bowler suggests that at the Genesis creation and at our own birth God imparted “divine CPR.” Perhaps we do not see or recognize our foundations consistently, but they are present. We have been given great gifts already.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

One comment

  • A good reminder for us if we get a little too big for our britches–we owe a debt to those who paved the way for us. Dr. Joe Alcorta, in 1966-68, was a young Mr. Alcorta who had faith in me and encouraged me to succeed. Also, Mr. Roland Blackford, AHS counselor, encouraged me as I volunteered in his office during a study hall period. I’ve never forgotten the importance of their time and caring.


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